Q&A: Tłı̨chǫ artist says latest work reflects his cultural learning process

·7 min read
Growing up outside of Yellowknife, Casey Koyczan said his latest installment reflects the way he learned about his Tłı̨chǫ Dene culture — through technology, like the internet. (Karen Asher/Casey Koyczan - image credit)
Growing up outside of Yellowknife, Casey Koyczan said his latest installment reflects the way he learned about his Tłı̨chǫ Dene culture — through technology, like the internet. (Karen Asher/Casey Koyczan - image credit)

Casey Koyczan, a Tłı̨chǫ Dene interdisplinary artist from Yellowknife, recently finished his master of fine art degree at the University of Manitoba with an installation at the Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery in Winnipeg.

It's called Ełexiìtǫ ; Ehts'ǫǫ̀ / Connected: Apart From Each Other, and you can take a virtual walk-through of it here.

Koyczan spoke to Loren McGinnis, the host of CBC North's The Trailbreaker, about the project. The following text is a part of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Take us into it, what was the installation and the artistic vision behind it?

It's called Connected Apart From Each Other. There's also the Tłı̨chǫ title that comes first and I won't say it in order to save me the embarrassment of mispronouncing it. But it's a reflection on my life-long journey, basically, of learning my culture from a distance.

I left Yellowknife when I was seven years old and moved around all over Western Canada, so I was immersed in a lot of other cultures, wherever I lived. But I was never immersed in my own, you know, and in my early adulthood, I felt it was important to learn as much of my culture as I could. However, I was not in Yellowknife, not in the N.W.T., so I had to do a lot of online research.

Connected Apart From Each Other is a work that kind of communicates that and how I've been learning a lot of my culture through the use of technology, like the Internet and online resources, reading up on all of the Dene legends from Denendeh and all the aspects that kind of come with being a Dene from the Northwest Territories.

Submitted by Casey Koyczan
Submitted by Casey Koyczan

Visually, what it looks like is there are five big willow logs. There were three or four huge willow trees that were cut down on the University of Manitoba's campus, so I was able to acquire five big pieces. I hollowed them out all the way from one side and implemented technology into them: some speakers that are in there are emitting a sound track, I'm using some light, 360 laser scanners are amended to the bottom of the logs that are picking up people's proximity.

I've also converted all of the Dene laws into binary code... to communicate technology's role in my life and technology's role in how I learned the majority about my culture. - Casey Koyczan

When you're standing kind of outside the installation, it's off, it's dimly lit and that sort of thing. There's no sound, no projections. And then when you enter the space, the lasers pick up your location and they trigger audio video samples that are specific to each log.

Each log has a different kind of mini composition of audio that is emitted from it. The closer you get to it, it's kind of like a volume sort of resonance. And as well, whenever the audio is triggered, some experimental video projections are also triggered, which is a combination of video clips mostly from the Northwest Territories, like landscapes, a few animals, that sort of thing.

I've also converted all of the Dene laws into binary code, like a bunch of series of ones and zeros. I did that in order to communicate technology's role in my life and technology's role in how I learned the majority about my culture, because that's like the antithesis of [analog information] is binary. That's how it's transferred. That's how it travels and how it communicates with other technological resources. So the viewer is really integral to the installation.

I implemented the Dene drum into each one of the logs in some form, different kinds of beat patterns, but it's all in the same tempo, like the same time signature, basically. So all five of the soundtracks have the ability to work together. And I really wanted to give the viewer the feeling or the energy of being within the drum dance or ceremony.

That's an incredible description of the work, thank you for that. Is this five-part composition, that activates when people are close to the logs, is that an artistic expression of you being close to your culture?

Yeah, absolutely, that's kind of the esthetic I was going for. That action of being outside of the space and then moving toward the log, that is a communication of the distance and the journey that I've kind of encountered and that a lot of people encounter about learning their culture from a distance. So the closer you get to it, it's like the more you understand, the more you accept and the more you're able to learn about your culture.

Submitted by Casey Koyczan
Submitted by Casey Koyczan

The work is so physical. A lot of chainsaw work with these really big logs to get them, to hollow them out and make them part of installation. What was the experience of doing this in such a physical way?

To be completely honest Loren, I've been doing this for a long time. I've been putting myself through the most intense kind of like work flows. I've pulled many muscles working on my artwork. And there's so many times I'm dripping with sweat, covered in sawdust, and I ask myself, like, why am I doing that? You know, like, why am I putting myself through this?

I really believe that's a by-product of me, of my past, because I was a hockey player moving toward this semi-professional hockey life. But I chose to move away from that, right. That's a lot of, I think, where my discipline has come from within my art practice and my drive and motivation. The physicality within my artwork, it was never something that I used to show or like film or anything like that. It was like this sacred part of my artwork. And it wasn't until 2017 when I took part in the Insurgence/Resurgence exhibit here in Winnipeg that someone was hired to basically follow me around and film me while I harvested.

Later on, I started to just set up my camera or my phone and just film myself working or harvesting. I'll post it to my [Instagram or Facebook] story or whatever just because it's like, well, this is what I'm doing. This is my work in progress, because I love seeing other people work and seeing their works in progress.

Submitted by Casey Koyzcan
Submitted by Casey Koyzcan

In terms of the people who have seen the exhibit, is there a reaction that's dear to you or sticks with you?

People thought it was an amazing installation, fascinating how it was so interactive that it has this aura of ceremony — something that I was really going for. It was kind of like serving as a substitute for ceremony and stuff like that. So I'm just grateful that even though it hasn't been this huge influx of people seeing the installation, I'm just glad that people thought it wasn't like ... a complete waste of time. Like in a way, I kind of feel like I've shot myself in the foot because it's a pandemic where there's this lockdown and no one can see artwork in person, I'm making this large scale interactive installation that requires people in it to make it work.

But at the same time, it's like, well, this is what I'm doing. This is my art. This is what I'm doing right now. And I don't regret any of it, you know, I don't regret that. I don't regret moving to Winnipeg. I don't regret doing my masters. It's an achievement and I feel proud, but at the same time, it's just like, well, yeah, what's next?

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